There’s this saying in puppetry, “If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right. Conversely, if it hurts that doesn’t necessarily mean you ARE doing it right.”
A lot of what we do involves twisting our bodies into odd positions and then holding weights over our head, while lip-syncing and singing. There are more comfortable postures, but very little of it is the way the human body is actually designed to work.
While I always try to build ergonomic puppets the fact is that there are times when it’s just going to hurt. Even holding your arm out in front of you, without a puppet is fatiguing and will eventually hurt. Someone once asked me why more puppeteers don’t do yoga. I showed him a standard operating position and said, “Now I have to sing while holding this position with a eight pound weight over my head.”
I’m reminded of the types of pain while going to the gym.
My trainer is very good at reading body language and knows how to take me right up to the limit of what my body will do, without damage. But, there are somethings that he can’t tell without a report from me.
To help with wrist strength, he had me hold a weight under handed, supporting my forearms on my knees. Using my wrists, I lowered the weight and brought it back up. As soon as he showed me the position a voice in my brain went “Uh-oh” because I’d had a wrist injury involving that position years ago. So, I started very cautiously, with a lot of control, to see how it would feel. It was fine. We moved up in weight. Five reps into it, I stopped because it was giving me the wrong type of pain.
This is one of the things you learn to identify as a puppeteer. There’s the pain of fatigue and there’s the pain of damage. The former you try to tune out. The latter is very, very important.
My wrist twinged for another fifteen or twenty minutes and hasn’t given me any other trouble. But let me explain why I know exactly how important it is to stop when the body is giving you that signal.
In early-2000 I was in a three-month run of Little Shop of Horrors. The largest puppet in that production weighed about 80 lbs and was well-balanced so it was easy to handle. Easy being a relative term. It’s still heavy and you can’t breath or see, but besides that, it’s easy to work.
The weekend before we closed the show, the actor playing Seymour and I were doing our usual fight scene and he threw his punch slightly early. It was supposed to happen while the puppet was on the ground, but happened while I still had it in the air.
The puppet twisted to the side and I tried to control it. In my wrist, something popped.
“That’s not good,” I thought and adjusted my grip to finish the show. Adrenalin is useful.
Afterwards, I iced it and wrapped it. It was a two show day so I just worked in different postures to try to avoid problems. That was a Sunday. I had Monday, Tuesday and most of Wednesday off during which I babied my wrist. It seemed like it was just a minor ouch.
Then I got back in the puppet.The moment I put my hand back into operating position I knew I had done something very, very wrong. Of course, I did the show anyway, by shifting to positions that didn’t hurt.
I was lucky and this was a rare show with workers comp so they whisked me off to ER as soon as the show was over. The doctor didn’t listen to anything I said and kept talking about repetative use injuries, ignoring the “sharp impact” and “popping” sensation I reported. He put me in a brace and sent me to a regular doctor the next day. The injury had very localized swelling and only hurt in certain positions. He thought it might be a cyst.
So I was immobilized for a week and then put into physical therapy.
The physical therapy felt wrong. I kept telling the therapist that it hurt and that it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t articulate why though, just that the pain was wrong. After a month, my whining eventually got me sent to a hand specialist.
It turned out that I’d torn a ligament — though not all the way through — and that I’d been re-tearing it every day for the past month.
I wound up being in a cast for the rest of the year and in physical therapy for months after that. So now, when the pain is the wrong sort of pain, I am very clear about the need to stop.
Fortunately, my trainer is smarter than that first physical therapist and listens to me when I say that something doesn’t feel right. There’s the good pain, that means you are doing it right. Then there’s the bad pain, that means you are doing it wrong. It’s important to understand the difference.
As a side note, the wrist injury happened two weeks after I met Rob.